Facebook can’t stop dabbling in financial services

Not content with trying to create a new global currency, Facebook now lets you pay for stuff through all its apps.

The new financial service is simply called Facebook Pay and it lets you use Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp to pay for stuff. This isn’t an extension of Libra, it should be stressed, and is more of a competitor to the payment platforms provided by Google and Apple on smartphones. Indeed Facebook’s biggest challenge is to explain to its users why they need yet another mobile payment platform when there are already so many to choose from.

This bit of the announcement tells us where Facebook thinks USPs can be found: “Facebook Pay will begin rolling out on Facebook and Messenger this week in the US for fundraisers, in-game purchases, event tickets, person-to-person payments on Messenger and purchases from select Pages and businesses on Facebook Marketplace. And over time, we plan to bring Facebook Pay to more people and places, including for use across Instagram and WhatsApp.”

In common with the Google and Apple equivalents, Facebook pay merely acts as a conduit for actual financial service providers like credit cards. The company seems to have identified latent demand for a more seamless payments experience when using its apps. Alternatively it could have taken a look at how huge WeChat is in China and decided it wants some of that action.

Facebook tends to copy rather than innovate and, when it comes to minor features, this approach seems to have served it well. Trying to recreate WeChat in the US, however, is a much larger undertaking and will require some degree of market education, which won’t be easy. Having said that the CCMI people seem to have similar ideas, so US consumers look set for a bit of a mobile revolution in the coming months.

Google forms alliance with some Android security specialists

The App Defense Alliance brings together Google, ESET, Lookout, and Zimperium to combat baddies on Android.

Considering how huge and diverse the Android ecosystem is it’s surprising how few malware catastrophes it has had. Maybe that thanks in part to the work of companies like Lookout, that offer freemium security apps on the Play Store. Google has apparently decided to be a bit more proactive on the security front itself, but without undermining all the good work that has already been done, hence the creation of the App Defense Alliance.

Working closely with our industry partners gives us an opportunity to collaborate with some truly talented researchers in our field and the detection engines they’ve built,” blogged Dave Kleidermacher, VP, Android Security & Privacy. “This is all with the goal of, together, reducing the risk of app-based malware, identifying new threats, and protecting our users.”

The clever bit involves integrating the Google Play Protect detection systems with each partner’s scanning engines. This will result in several pairs of eyes having a close look at apps that are in the queue for publication on the Play store and, in theory, resuce the chances of any of them containing any moody code.

Judging by an interview Kleidermacher gave Wired, from Google’s perspective this is all about coordinating the security efforts of a bunch of previously autonomous players. What’s in it for the other partners isn’t so obvious. In the Wired article they said all the right things about being greater than the sum of their parts, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of Google cash helped persuade them too.

Google launches a bunch of hardware

Internet giant Google has launched the latest version of its own smartphone, together with a bunch of other stuff, as it continues to expand its hardware offering.

The tagline for the Pixel 4 smartphone is that it’s the most helpful version yet. On the surface this is a reference to Google Assistant, which has been beefed up with even more AI power to ensure it knows what you want before you do, thus sparing you the pain and indignity of having to do things like choose, decide, think, etc.

On those rare occasions when the phone feels the need to consult its owner about their best interests, it’s further assisted by improved speech recognition, which is now largely processed locally. This feature also enables a new voice recorder app that will be able to transcribe in real time – very handy for lazy journalists.

Other than that the Pixel 4 seems to come with all the expected bells and whistles; an improved camera, better chips, etc. You can possibly find out a bit more in the first of the videos below, we’re not sure if the motion sensor will be more help or hinderance. It will ship globally on October 24, costing $799 for the regular one and $899 for one that’s a bit bigger.

On top of that Google also launched some new BlueTooth ear buds, a smart speaker called the Next Mini, a wifi router incorporating the Next Mini called Next Wifi and a new laptop called the Pixelbook Go. Goole has been generous with its YouTube videos for this launch so we’ll let them do the rest of the talking.

 

Apple U-turns again to pull HK map app under pressure from Beijing

Apple has removed the crowd-sourced app HKmap.live, favoured by the protesters in Hong Kong, from its local App Store, after being blasted by China’s state media.

The submission of the mapping app, developed on top of the web version which could enable users to instantly track the police movements, among other things on the roads, was first rejected by Apple, on the ground that “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” This caused strong protest from both local users in Hong Kong and politicians in the US so Apple reversed its decision and made the app available. The US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) told his followers on Twitter that Apple admitted it “mistakenly” failed to go through full review process the first time:

Shortly after the change of mind by Apple, the People’s Daily, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s major propaganda outlets, accused Apple of “helping HK rioters engage in more violence”. Apple quickly undertook a second reversal in days to take down the app. The company said in a statement on the decision that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” The web version is still available.

This is only one of the latest actions Apple has taken after finding itself caught in a perfect political storm. One day earlier it also removed Quartz, the online news publication, from the China App Store, following complaints from the Chinese government. Apple told Quartz that the app “includes content that is illegal in China”, reported The Verge.

Quartz believed this might refer to its discussion on VPN technologies, the use of which is illegal in China, and its coverage of and links to coverage of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Quartz’s website is also blocked by China’s Great Firewall. A week earlier when Apple updated its operating system, iPhone users who set their locale to  Hong Kong and Macau found the Taiwan flag had disappeared from emojis.

This is just one of the highest profile cases of global companies contorting themselves to appease local political interests, with China the centre of attention not the least because of its reputation as one of the most censorious countries, Apple vs. China only epitomises the delicate balance almost all global companies are forced to strike, and not always successfully. Whenever they enter markets that operate very differently to their domestic one, these companies, especially those from North America and Western Europe, have to make a choice between the values of their origin and market pressure.

Increasingly we have seen companies surrender to market pressure, which has led to more either remedial or even pre-emptive self-censorship. Such conflict has a long history in the digital age. Back in 2010, Google pulled out of China when it decided to no longer comply with the latter’s demand for censoring search results. In the same year, India, Indonesia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, among others, demanded access to the encrypted communication carried out by the then king of instant messaging, BlackBerry Messenger, for national security and data localisation purposes. RIM, the then owner of BlackBerry, bowed to the Saudi pressure, and Nokia, who also operated messaging services, decided to set up a local data centre in India.

Recently we have seen Google’s repeated attempts to re-enter China, by offering willingly to censor content to please the Chinese authorities, despite backlashes in its own office. Meanwhile games developer Blizzard had faced a backlash for acting against a Hong Kong protester, as has the US NBA for similar activity.

Teen-focused social app TikTok bans political advertising

TikTok, a video selfie app popular with teenagers, has sensibly decided political advertising doesn’t fit in with its vibe.

For those unfamiliar with it, TikTok is the latest big thing in social media for kids, teens and, presumably, anyone reluctant to move on from that phase. It enables people to make and publish short video clips of themselves on their phones and even splice in other media. It comes over as the best app yet to facilitate the kind of narcissism enabled by the social media connected camera phone.

TikTok’s most popular users seem to be teens doing musical performances or just generally talking to the camera, so it seems to reside somewhere in between Instagram and YouTube. But just as importantly it’s relatively new and unsullied by grownups, so it could well be increasingly supplanting its competitors in the teen market.

Conscious of its user demographic, TikTok is sensibly careful about its commercial deals. The PR consequences of serving ‘inappropriate’ content to kids would be severe and not worth the revenue. The latest such decision has been made regarding political advertising, which everyone knows is often the most bad-faith, dishonest, unpleasant propaganda and totally incongruous in an environment fills with kids just trying to have a bit of attention-seeking fun.

“…our primary focus is on creating an entertaining, genuine experience for our community,” said Blake Chandlee, VP of Global Business Solutions at TikTok, in a recent blog post. “While we explore ways to provide value to brands, we’re intent on always staying true to why users uniquely love the TikTok platform itself: for the app’s light-hearted and irreverent feeling that makes it such a fun place to spend time.

“In that spirit, we have chosen not to allow political ads on TikTok. Any paid ads that come into the community need to fit the standards for our platform, and the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience. To that end, we will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level – including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.

It’s hard to argue with TikTok’s rationale here and we wouldn’t be surprised if some of its competitors rue not making such a decision too. The likes of Facebook presumably make loads of money from political advertising, but it comes with all sorts of baggage and scandal. There’s presumably plenty of money to be made from the ten-specific ad industry and TikTok would be wise to stick to that.

Apple rejects crowdsourced map app used by Hong Kong protesters

HKmap.live is a crowdsourced web app that shows the location of Hong Kong protests and police activity. Apple has rejected the app version of it.

This is the feedback the developers got from Apple, which they shared in a tweet. “Your app contains content – or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity – that is not legal … Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” The tweet goes on to object to the assumption that the app is used to break the law, but Apple seems to be saying that any app used to identify the location of coppers is intrinsically illegal.

Initial reports on the matter implied Apple had banned a pre-existing app, but the developers subsequently tweeted to clarify that the app had been rejected during the review process and to say that its main frustration was the glacial progress of that process. It also noted that anything can be used for illegal purposes in the wrong hands and that the app is designed only to provide information. It has received some support for its position.

This minor controversy puts Apple in a delicate position as it raises the question of whether its decision was influenced by pressure from China. The Hong Kong protests were prompted by apparent attempts by China to exert greater direct control over the semi-autonomous region and have become a significant embarrassment to the Chinese government. If it continues to the block the app, Apple will be under increasing pressure to demonstrate it’s not doing so for political reasons.

Backdoor to Google services closed for Huawei Mate 30

There was a brief glimmer of hope for Huawei users that Google services might have been an option for its latest smartphones, but the workaround has now been closed.

Yesterday on Medium, security researcher John Wu posted a way in which Google services could be downloaded to the latest range of Huawei devices. Many would have been searching for a way to get around the Huawei ban on using Google services, and while we suspect there will be some still out there, this one has at least been closed   .

Wu goes into some detail in his post, though through manually installing Google Mobile Services via an app called LZ Play, users were able to take advantage of an oversight. For a very brief period, some users were able to install Google applications such as Gmail, Maps and Google Pay on their devices, though this has now been removed.

Interestingly enough, this could open-up some uncomfortable questions for Huawei.

It might be deemed a suspect situation to download the app, which requests system-level access, though when you start to look at how it works, it becomes a little more nefarious. Wu suggests the app makes use of undocumented Huawei APIs which can somehow bypass Android’s security system.

To make the situation a bit more complicated, it is now very difficult to find LZ Play on the internet, aside from in news stories. There is one German company and a translated-page which the Google search engine is no-longer able to connect to. It does appear a lot of the traces of this app and the developer has been erased.

Perhaps this is a development US rule makers and Google should take a very close look at. How did an app developer manage to circumnavigate the security blocks which were put in place so easily? This is not proof of nefarious activity elsewhere, but it does indicate some are aware of the cracks in Google software.

Android moves to replace Google Pay music app with YouTube Music

Google wants to make YouTube the default audio app on Android in the hope of boosting its chances of competing with Spotify.

Right now the default Android audio app is Google Play Music, which does try to get users to upgrade to Google’s subscription streaming service, but doesn’t do a very good job of it and is mainly used as the interface for accessing locally stored audio files. Rather than overhaul the way that upsell is managed Google has decided to merge it with the YouTube Music app.

Music videos are arguably the most popular type of content on YouTube, with the top 30 most viewed individual videos dominated by music. YouTube monetizes those via serving ads on the video, but it would rather people paid upfront to its premium subscription service, that offers ad-free playback, background play on mobile devices (without it the music disappears if you switch to another app) and even downloading.

YouTube premium has plenty of features, but Spotify is the incumbent streaming music service, so Google has to do something special to topple it. As politicians, regulators and anti-trust authorities around the world are increasingly sensitive to, in Android Google has an incredible powerful platform for upselling its other digital products and services and it seems to have decided YouTube Premium needs the power of Android to give it critical mass.

YouTube Music is your personal guide through the complete world of music—whether it’s a hot new song, hard to find gem, or an unmissable music video,” says the announcement, tellingly published on the YouTube blog. “Music fans on Android phones can now easily unlock the magic of YouTube Music, which will come installed on all new devices launching with Android 10 (and Android 9), including the Pixel series.”

The announcement also made it clear that Google Play Music will no longer be preinstalled, which seems like a precursor to it being replaced entirely. You can still access locally stored files through YouTube Music, but on first inspection the user interface is inferior to Google Play Music, so the company may face some push-back from users on that. We’ll leave you with the top 5 music videos ever on YouTube, bafflingly headed by the entirely mundane Despacito. Contrastingly Gangnam Style has lost none of its kitsch, tongue-in-cheek charm.

 

Uber app gets a major overhaul

Ride sharing giant Uber has emphasised its diversification and desire to play nice with the broader market in a major new version of its app.

Somewhat ambitiously positioned as ‘an operating system for everyday life’, the new app elevates Uber Eats to have equal billing with the Rides service. Uber Eats offers a takeaway service for places that don’t do such a thing themselves, such as most fast food providers. It’s the other main way freelance drivers can earn money through Uber.

On top of that there’s fairly significant new security feature called Verify Your Ride, which provides the passenger with a special number, that the driver needs to input before the journey can begin. This seems to be designed to address concerns about rogue drivers masquerading as Uber ones and the obvious security risk that poses.

The other major change is the addition of a bunch of non-Uber travel information, such as public transport, to search results. This counterintuitive move has presumably been made to placate regulators and anyone else hostile to the Uber business model, by indicating Uber’s willingness to play nice with broader society and not abuse its dominant position in the ad hoc transport sector.

“We recognize that becoming an integral part of people’s lives comes with real responsibility,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in the associated announcement. “That’s why we are working to make sure every customer is treated like a VIP, every driver and courier feels like a valued partner, and every city feels like we’re a good citizen. With that in mind, today we also announced a number of innovative features and new partnerships.”

Right now you can be treated like a VIP for just $25 per month through Ride Pass, which offers discounts. That is now being extended to Eats in the form of Uber Pass, which also grants ‘free’ deliveries. There’s also Uber Rewards, which rewards you with little treats if you use Uber enough. Uber is looking to diversify on the back of its strong position, while at the same time taking measures to mitigate that dominance, which is sensible.

Google doubles down on India

Google has announced that use of its Google Pay platform has tripled to 67 million users in India.

In a series of announcements Google renewed its commitment to the Indian market, which probably represents its greatest growth opportunity despite the relatively low disposable income of most of its inhabitants. The internet giant has been investing heavily in India for a few years and seems to be happy with the returns.

With a population of over a billion, 67 million users is a relatively small proportion, but it’s likely to keep growing rapidly as the Indian government tries to phase out cash in a bid to tackle the black economy. The growth in Google Pay use also coincides with a boom in smartphone ownership in the country as companies like Xiaomi manage to offer them at the right price point.

Another Google investment unique to India is a free phone line launched in partnership with Vodafone-Idea that allows even those people who can only afford 2G basic phones to use Google. When you call the number you get through to a Google Assistant service that understands both English and Hindi, which you can ask for the weather forecast, sports scores or whatever.

Google has become the company it is by giving digital services away for free and then monetizing the resulting user base. There’s no reason to believe this approach will be any less effective in India, but Google has concluded some unique offerings are required to break into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see how the company manages to coexist with Jio, which has put digital services at the core of its strategy too.